By Greg Craven
AUSTRALIANS often come together to support those experiencing life’s challenges.
Such engagement brings hope and possibilities to people through trusting relationships, purposeful connections and relevant education.
This continues to be at the core of the identity and mission of Australian Catholic University.
It has been 12 years since Clemente – the university program opening up philosophy, history, art, literature and logic to the poor and those experiencing multiple disadvantage – launched in Australia.
Many of the Clemente students are experiencing combinations of mental health issues, addiction, unemployment, abuse, financial difficulties and homelessness.
From a humble beginning in East Sydney in 2003 with a handful of students, the program is now run through six universities around Australia and has well over 150 graduates.
Many have gone on to further studies.
However success cannot be measured entirely by crunching the numbers.
For most, the greatest benefits are less tangible.
Clemente began in New York City’s East Village in 1995, founded by the journalist, novelist and social critic Earl Shorris.
He called Clemente a “redistribution of wealth”, and argued that teaching humanities to the poor gave these students the ultimate skills – reflection and critical thinking.
It may sound idealistic, but the program quickly spread, and in 2003 the St Vincent de Paul Society of NSW invited Mr Shorris to Australia.
He gave a talk on emerging issues related to the poor and disadvantaged, and spoke of his vision to use higher education to empower people and break the cycle of poverty.
In the audience was ACU’s Associate Professor Peter Howard, who was then acting president of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Sydney.
With others, he took the idea, and ran with it.
ACU began offering the Certificate in Liberal Studies to students soon after.
The program is taught in a community setting, where students feel more comfortable than facing the idea of coming on campus and studying in a university environment.
The age range is from 18 and the oldest student has been 74.
Many of the Clemente graduates have used the program as a pathway to reconnecting with families, building social networks, further education, employment and community participation.
Some did not complete the full program but found that even one semester of Clemente was enough for them to identify new possibilities and both see and seek a new future.
In the 12 years since its launch, Clemente has moved from being a fringe program within the university to being acknowledged as a program that clearly identifies with the mission and vision of ACU.
Clemente students come from a huge range of cultural and social backgrounds, and have a contribution to make, from which all of the community can benefit.
An ongoing and rigorous research agenda has made evident a key aspect of Clemente – the importance of hope.
While there is significant focus today on teaching “employable skills” to this sector of society, these count for little when someone can’t relate to others, and doesn’t believe they have potential to change their own lives.
Clemente Australia helps fill that gap, realising people’s hope and the vision of a different future.
Another outcome that can’t be ignored is the ripple effect – the inter-generational impact.
Children see their parents taking an interest in study, friends encourage each other to give it a go, and siblings see their brothers or sisters tackle something they thought was impossible.
Yarrie Bangura is just one of the many Clemente success stories.
She fled civil war in Sierra Leone with her family, and spent years in a camp in Guinea before arriving in Australia.
When she arrived she couldn’t read or write, and had terrible flashbacks of what she experienced.
The 20-year-old completed the Clemente program at ACU in 2014.
Now she’s an established poet, an actress, and is commencing a Bachelor of International Development Studies.
In her words, “Clemente showed me there was something out there for me.”
Professor Greg Craven is Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University.